Thoroughly researched biography of Stephen Crane (1871-1900), who shocked his contemporaries with raw, gritty fiction.
Sorrentino (English/Virginia Tech; editor: Stephen Crane Remembered, 2006, etc.) faced challenges in writing this biography: mainly, previous books that perpetuated errors and lies and few sources to set the record straight. His study chronicles the personal and literary struggles of a controversial writer who vowed to live “a life of fire.” The youngest son in a large family of precociously intelligent children, Crane refused to follow in his father’s footsteps as a minister, instead hoping to train at West Point for a military career. However, his plan was deflected by an older brother’s advice to enter a mining-engineering program at Lafayette College. There, and later at Syracuse University, Crane was a mediocre student, preferring to drink, smoke, play poker and carouse with his fraternity brothers; he finally dropped out and moved to New York City, intent on becoming a writer. While barely supporting himself as a journalist, he finished a novel drawn from the life he observed in the city’s slums: “the bleak portrayal of a naïve, sentimental girl in the tenements of New York.” Unable to find a publisher for Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Crane published the book himself, winning praise from writer Hamlin Garland and influential editor William Dean Howells. The novel, Sorrentino writes, was “the first significant example of literary determinism in American literature,” but its candor and pessimism made critics wary of reviewing it. Three years later, though, The Red Badge of Courage, Crane’s psychological study of a Civil War soldier, generated adulation and fame. Good fortune was short-lived, however; bad business decisions and “questionable ethics” eroded what he earned, and Crane’s last years were fraught with financial troubles. He kept writing, always hoping for a fresh start, until tuberculosis killed him at the age of 28.
Sorrentino’s authoritative and sympathetic portrait revives a “bohemian rebel” and prolific, groundbreaking writer.